When people think about country music and politics, the first thing they often think about is the infamous backlash directed against the artists formerly known as the Dixie Chicks (now known as The Chicks) for speaking out against the Iraq War. After that, country music took on a perceived partisan identity as being pro-Republican and anti-Democrat.
That may have changed on Wednesday when Garth Brooks, arguably country’s biggest star, and the most successful solo male artist in music history, took the stage to perform a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
During his inaugural address, Biden spoke of the task of “bringing America together” and “uniting our nation.” Having Brooks on that stage was a compelling and tangible way to breathe life and song into those words. Country music stars Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard will also perform their new song, “Undivided,” during the “Celebrating America” inauguration concert.
In normal times, being asked to perform at an event like this would be the easiest invitation to accept. After all, what could be more American than taking the stage to celebrate the peaceful transfer of power? But these are not normal times.
We are just two weeks removed from the Capitol siege. The country more divided than ever before. Escalating rhetoric and violent designs have converged. Any artist would be foolish not to think about safety and security for themselves and those around them during a time like this.
For Brooks, who turned down an invitation to perform at Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, those questions are tricky given a fan base that tends to be more Republican. For Lady Gaga or Jennifer Lopez, there is no career harm by agreeing to perform at the Biden inauguration. For Brooks or any country music performer, alienating the core audience is a very real possibility.
Brooks’ Facebook page already has plenty of fans criticizing his appearance at Biden’s inauguration. “You made a grave mistake in the eyes of your fan base.” “I just lost all respect for you, will NEVER buy another thing you record.” “Disappointed! Very very disappointed! Need the same fate as dixie chicks!”
You get the idea.
No one would have blamed Brooks if he had passed on this invitation. And yet in this moment, days removed from a domestic terror attack on the Capitol, Biden’s call for unity is also a request for representation and participation. Against the dark forces of division and hate, the most powerful action we can take is to keep showing up.
To many, country music is the soundtrack to our lives. This is the music millions of Americans turn to for comfort, inspiration and connection. Having Brooks on stage was a way to reach out to the entire country, including his legions of avid fans in red states.
In recent years, country music and politics have become more intertwined — whether in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Route 91 country music festival in Vegas, addressing sexism in country radio, or racism in our society, country music is finding its voice in the fight for societal progress. And while some fans may vow to disown artists they disagree with, it’s encouraging to see many country artists not give into fear and stand up for their beliefs even at some peril.
I love the country music community, and it was wonderful to see Brooks representing us at an inflection in our history and culture. His song reminded us that no matter what our differences are, we are one country nation.